Bishops back plea for 'inclusive communion'

The Anglican leadership issued a stark message of inclusivity yesterday in a key sermon delivered to 650 bishops by a speaker invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

"There is space equally for anyone and everyone, regardless of colour, ability, gender or sexual orientation," said Duleep de Chickera, the Bishop of Colombo in Sri Lanka, in a passionate sermon which received prolonged applause from the bishops at Canterbury Cathedral.

"It is an inclusive communion where there is space equally for everyone and anyone regardless," the bishop said in the service presided over by Rowan Williams that marked the official opening of the Lambeth Conference.

While acknowledging that "some of us are not here" – a reference to more than 200 conservative bishops boycotting the conference – Bishop de Chickera added that "unity in diversity is the cherished Anglican tradition ... United in spite of the fact that we are different, because in Christ we are equal".

Dr Williams received a standing ovation from the bishops last night, a clear indication that he has achieved unity among those at the 10-yearly Lambeth Conference. The warm reception – a strong endorsement of his leadership – came after he joked that the bishops had heard enough from him after a series of sermons given behind closed doors.

In the subsequent speech, the Archbishop of Canterbury called the current dispute "one of the most severe challenges to face the Anglican family."

But Dr Williams said: "We need to get beyond the reciprocal impatience that shows itself in the ways in which both liberals and traditionalists are ready – almost eager at times, it appears – to assume the other is not actually listening to Jesus."

The message came as a senior Archbishop confirmed that doubt felt by bishops about the state of the Communion had been removed by a series of "revelatory" closed-door sermons delivered by Dr Williams last week. Bishops "warmed enormously" to Dr Williams's message of unity, said the Archbishop of Brisbane and Primate of the Anglican Province of Australia, Phillip Aspinall.

Against the odds, Dr Williams has created a strong sense of unity among the bishops at the University of Kent. Walking a tightrope between liberals and conservatives over sexuality and gender, Dr Williams has focused bishops' minds on the higher meaning of their mission. Archbishop Aspinall said Dr Williams "put it to us that we must go into this conference confident that a way has been found to the Father through the Cross".

The divisive issue of sexuality will be discussed by bishops next week.

Earlier, Bishop de Chickera referred to "the wounded Anglican Communion" and "our vulnerability", before adding: "The recognition of our vulnerability is what makes growth possible in Christian discipleship."

The sermon raised a laugh when the bishop said he came from a land of five religions. "Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and cricket". He proposed bishops take an afternoon out to play the sport.

A field in Canterbury saw the first appearance of Gene Robinson, the media-friendly openly gay bishop who has timed a visit to the city to coincide with the conference to which he was not invited. The controversial bishop was attending a gay and lesbian service outside St Stephen's Church near the university.

However, in a sign of the near-universal unity of the church at this stage, the event was not presided over by Bishop Robinson. Instead, Colin Coward, the head of Changing Attitude, and Susan Russell, president of Integrity, the equivalent group in the US, presided and preached.

The Lambeth Conference agenda

*Today: Celebrating common ground – the bishop and Anglican identity

*Tuesday: Proclaiming the good news – the bishop and evangelism

*Wednesday: Transforming society – the bishop and social justice

*Thursday: Walk of Witness in London; garden party with the Queen at Buckingham Palace

*Friday: Serving together – the bishop and other churches

*Saturday: The environment

*Monday 28 July: Multi-faith world

*Wednesday: The Bible mission

*Thursday: Listening to God and Each Other – human sexuality

*Friday: Reflections